James M. Keller re­views the Dover Quar­tet; Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica with vi­o­lin­ist Colin Ja­cob­sen; and Ab­so­lute Bright­ness


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The Dover Quar­tet moves from strength to strength. Formed in 2008 at the Cur­tis In­sti­tute in Philadel­phia, the group was in­tro­duced to au­di­ences here through a splen­did con­cert at the 2014 Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, which then brought the four­some back last sum­mer to per­form a sin­gle Schu­bert quar­tet (a cu­ri­ous de­ci­sion). The group will re­turn for a third visit to the fes­ti­val this com­ing Au­gust — again play­ing just one string quar­tet (Smetana’s First), al­though the mu­si­cians will also be team­ing up with Peter Serkin for Dvoˇrák’s Pi­ano Quin­tet and with other string play­ers for Schu­bert’s String Quin­tet and Dvorák’sˇ String Sex­tet. Mu­sic lovers should leap at the op­por­tu­nity to hear th­ese play­ers in what­ever con­fig­u­ra­tion, but what sets them most apart in the cham­ber mu­sic world is per­haps best ap­pre­ci­ated when they ap­pear as a quar­tet with no add-ons.

That i s how Los Alamos Con­cert As­so­ci­a­tion pre­sented them on March 11, pro­vid­ing lis­ten­ers the op­por­tu­nity to bask in the ex­or­bi­tantly beau­ti­ful sound that has be­come the quar­tet’s hall­mark. Shim­mer­ing tim­bre, su­perb blend, poised con­fi­dence, and sunny dis­po­si­tion marked the Dovers’ play­ing from the open­ing mea­sures of Mozart’s Hunt Quar­tet (K. 458), which they took at a clip that was more brisk than one usu­ally hears, thereby hon­or­ing Mozart’s un­am­bigu­ous mark­ing of Al­le­gro vi­vace as­sai (Very quick and rapid). Cer­tainly the en­sem­ble can be em­phatic in its phras­ing, as in the loud, ac­cented chords that be­gin the first move­ment’s coda or, in the Trio sec­tion of the Menuetto, at the first vi­olin’s leap to a high E-f lat, ac­cen­tu­ated not only by pow­er­ful bow­ing but also by a ris­ing por­ta­mento and a slightly raspy tone. But even in mo­ments such as th­ese, one senses that the mu­si­cians’ over­rid­ing con­cern is to not stray too far or too long from their es­sen­tial beauty. The su­per­nal Ada­gio was marred by an un­fet­tered bronchial ob­bli­gato from nu­mer­ous points in the au­di­ence, and this may have un­nerved the play­ers. How else to ex­plain their un­char­ac­ter­is­tic fail­ure to match the ar­tic­u­la­tion of the fi­nal note in an unas­sum­ing but im­por­tant lit­tle phrase that is passed from first vi­olin to cello a cou­ple of times? But, re­ally, any quib­bles would be that small.

The four­some clev­erly brought along a piece they gauged would prove pop­u­lar with the sci­en­tists up on The Hill: Pale Blue Dot, by their Cur­tis col­league David Lud­wig. It is a cham­ber-mu­sic tone poem that imag­ines chirp­ing aliens en­coun­ter­ing the Voy­ager space probe cruis­ing through some dis­tant galaxy, de­ci­pher­ing (in dis­torted form) a sound record­ing of the Ca­vatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quar­tet the space­ship has on board, and then send­ing the Voy­ager on its way. The piece is ami­able if per­haps overly long — at least two rep­e­ti­tions of ma­te­rial seemed ex­pend­able — and makes ef­fec­tive use of non­tra­di­tional sounds, like click-clack­ing on fin­ger­boards with metal rap­pers. The Beethoven ref­er­ence was log­i­cal, since both space­ships of the Voy­ager pro­gram re­ally do carry phono­graph records that in­clude the Ca­vatina, among many other pieces. Less ap­par­ent was why Lud­wig so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally quoted Bernard Her­rmann’s score for Al­fred Hitch­cock’s

Ver­tigo. Per­haps f loat­ing in space made him dizzy. To con­clude, the en­sem­ble played some undis­torted Beethoven: his Quar­tet in F ma­jor (Op. 59, No. 1), the First Razu­movsky. As one might have an­tic­i­pated, th­ese play­ers found the piece less prickly than many en­sem­bles do. They re­minded me of Is­abella Ros­sellini or Johnny Depp: No mat­ter how gritty their char­ac­ter, they’re still drop- dead gor­geous. So it is with the Dover Quar­tet mu­si­cians, whose sen­su­ous full­ness ex­erts a con­so­nant mag­netism even when they’re busy mak­ing a dif­fer­ent point.

More fine string-play­ing had ar­rived the pre­ced­ing week­end at a March 6 con­cert of the Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Or­ches­tra (Thomas O’Con­nor con­duct­ing) in which vi­o­lin­ist Colin Ja­cob­sen was the soloist in con­certed works by Vaughan Wil­liams and

Prokofiev. The Lark As­cend­ing, a de­scrip­tive piece in­spired by a f lorid 19th-cen­tury poem by Ge­orge Mered­ith, is a de­pend­able rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Vaughan Wil­liams’ pas­toral style, com­bin­ing sus­tained yet gen­tle ec­stasy with a touch of melan­choly. Some­times this piece seems no more than a con­cert equiv­a­lent to Lassie Come Home, but Ja­cob­sen made it fas­ci­nat­ing through its de­tails. Al­though he could let loose with full tone and rich vi­brato, he of­ten chose to in­vest the piece with a nar­rower, un­in­flected tone that sug­gested a high-ly­ing erhu, the Chi­nese qual­ity be­ing re­in­forced by the piece’s pen­ta­tonic f la­vor. His ren­di­tion of Prokofiev’s Vi­olin Con­certo No. 2 also dis­played a very selec­tive use of tim­bral pos­si­bil­i­ties. Al­though it did not lack for lyri­cism, this was not over­all a Ro­man­ti­cized ap­proach, fa­vor­ing in­stead pre­ci­sion and emo­tional re­straint. O’Con­nor held the com­pli­cated rhythms to­gether tightly in the fi­nale. Also on the pro­gram was Haydn’s Sym­phony No. 103, nick­named the Drum­roll, al­though here that open­ing sonor­ity was trans­formed into a lav­ish tim­pani fan­fare. The idea seemed to in­habit the en­tire piece ex­ces­sively, with the read­ing of­ten turn­ing thumpy and bois­ter­ous to a de­gree that ob­scured some es­sen­tial or­ches­tral parts.

The Adobe Rose Theatre, which got off to a strong start with its in­au­gu­ral pro­duc­tion in Jan­uary, is now bat­ting two for two. Its se­cond of­fer­ing was an im­ported pre­sen­ta­tion rather than a home-built pro­duc­tion, but it was a mem­o­rable evening, which we caught on March 5: a one-man play writ­ten and per­formed by James Le­cesne (with di­rec­tion by Tony Spe­ciale) that was hith­erto ti­tled The Ab­so­lute Bright­ness

of Leonard Pelkey but for its Santa Fe run was re­named just Ab­so­lute Bright­ness, which is ad­mit­tedly less of a mouth­ful. The Leonard Pelkey who dropped from the ti­tle also dropped from view be­fore this fic­tional tale be­gins its telling: He was a four­teen-year- old lad of pal­pa­bly gay pro­cliv­i­ties who went miss­ing from his home­town on the Jersey shore and turned up mur­dered. You wouldn’t think that would be the mak­ings of a com­edy; and in fact Ab­so­lute Bright­ness is not a com­edy, al­though it of­ten charms a viewer into think­ing of it as such. It also has the bones of a de­tec­tive story, a noir one dur­ing the scenes nar­rated in B-movie style by the gumshoe who tracks down the leads. Le­cesne plays that de­tec­tive with hard-bit­ten un­flap­pa­bil­ity, and he also plays ev­ery­one else who was in young Leonard’s or­bit: his sort-of aunt, who runs a beauty par­lor called Hair To­day; her daugh­ter, to whom she is a per­pet­ual em­bar­rass­ment; one of her clients from the sa­lon, who con­sents to go iden­tify the body and ends up cri­tiquing the in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing at the morgue; Leonard’s Bri­tish drama teacher at the com­mu­nity arts school; a mob­ster’s widow, who spots Leonard’s shoes f loat­ing in the wa­ter; an el­derly clock re­pair­man who had be­friended Leonard; and some ac­quain­tances from school, one of whom is re­vealed to have been his mur­derer.

When the play is over, au­di­ence mem­bers are likely to have imag­ined that they watched an en­tire cast of ac­tors, so com­pletely and con­vinc­ingly did Le­cesne trans­form him­self be­fore their eyes. Some of the por­tray­als were per­haps a bit clichéd, but some­times clichés are born of au­then­tic­ity, and none of th­ese char­ac­ters seemed less than gen­uine. It is all done through pure act­ing, with only the slight­est help from props and a few el­e­gant touches of filmed back­ground im­ages. When all is said and done, the play paints a por­trait of a town that may ap­pear un­re­mark­able on the sur­face and yet is rich in hu­man­ity. We glimpse Leonard through an out-of-fo­cus pho­to­graph, but as the de­tec­tive makes his rounds and ex­tracts morsels of in­for­ma­tion, we gain a firmer im­age of him, tot­ter­ing about on rain­bow-hued plat­form shoes of his own de­sign, re­cruit­ing stage­hands for a the­ater pro­duc­tion, shar­ing clear-eyed in­sights with the ladies at Hair To­day. His life ends badly and too soon, of course, yet the play is up­lift­ing. He may have been an od­dball in his com­mu­nity, but when we look be­neath the sur­face, ev­ery­one else is too, and they are the richer for hav­ing known him.

Los Alamos Con­cert As­so­ci­a­tion pro­vided lis­ten­ers the op­por­tu­nity to bask in the ex­or­bi­tantly beau­ti­ful

sound that has be­come the Dover Quar­tet’s hall­mark.

Dover Quar­tet

Colin Ja­cob­sen

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